Q: Your first thriller, The Genesis Secret, was set around an ancient temple in southern Turkey, and The Marks of Cain takes us to the Pyrenees and the Namibian Desert. Do you travel to these places as part of your research?
A: I try and visit all the locations in my thrillers – I like to think of it as a Tom Knox hallmark. About the only place I didn’t go to see for The Genesis Secret was the Isle of Man (I ran out of time) and Lalesh in Iraq (too dangerous). But everywhere else, from Dublin to Dorset to northern France – to Kurdistan, Istanbul and Tel Aviv – I visited them all.
The same goes for Marks of Cain – I went to (or had already visited) the Basque country, Namibia, Arizona, the Monastery of Tourette, etc.
There is nothing like actually going to a place to get those telling details that make a location come alive. For instance I recently visited an old Khmer Rouge lair in Cambodia for my third book. The house of the Khmer Dictator Pol Pot turned out to be situated right next to a dead lake. None of the guide books told me this (most don’t even mention the house). But a dead lake was perfect for my thriller, and I wouldn’t have known it existed without visiting the locale.
Q: Do you prefer the research or the writing part of the process?
A: The research and the rewriting are by far the most fun. The research is great because – let’s be honest – I get to travel to exotic locations, hopefully nice and sunny when it’s cold and rainy in England! And I am paid to do it – what could be better than that? Also I just like travelling.
The rewriting is fun because it’s then you see the shine of the book come through, as you administer the final polish. I guess a carpenter gets the same satisfaction as he adds the final veneer to a chair – that’s the moment you stand back and think – ‘hey, not bad’.
By contrast the actual writing, the first draft, is tough. It’s very hard work and lonely as well, it’s not without its satisfactions but it is the least enjoyable part of the process, and yet also the most important.
Q: There are some very evil baddies in both The Genesis Secret and The Marks of Cain. Which do you find most fun to write, the heroes or the villains?
A: I’m not sure I have heroes as such – I have fairly ordinary decent people thrust into extraordinary situations. But yes, I definitely have baddies! And yes I do like writing them. I can pour all my worst traits – and all my friends’ worst traits – into one person. That is amusing and cathartic; I hope it amuses readers. But I also like my baddies to be a little bit believable, otherwise they are cartoons.
Q: What, for you, is the secret of a really satisfying thriller read?
A: Plot, plot and plot. I have been writing novels for twenty years (before The Genesis Secret I wrote literary fiction – otherwise known as novels without plots!) It’s only in the last five years that I have begun to appreciate the absolutely vital part played by a good solid relentless and kinetic plot. People like stories, they hunger for stories, we are built to like stories – so a writer should provide a good story.
I read an interesting anecdote the other day about PG Wodehouse. Everyone knows how funny his books are, but apparently he spent most of his time working out plots – he found it difficult to do (because it is – pinning down plot is the hardest part of fiction) but he stuck at it. Because he knew if he got the plot right the rest would flow – he could write the comedy very easily.
That’s why his stories are so good, even though you don’t quite realise. Beneath that brilliant veneer of wit and drollery there is a plot, working away, to keep you interested – like clockwork inside a gold Swiss watch. You don’t see it, but it is there. And without it the watch wouldn’t work.
Q: Are there any authors who particularly inspire (or depress!) you?
A: Three very disparate writers, Dan Brown for one. Yes I know his prose style is a bit clunky, and when I came to read The Da Vinci Code I was prepared to be appalled, and yet I found myself swept up in that book. Because – yes – it has a very punchy plot. Every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger or puzzle, or both.
That is a very hard thing to do, yet he brought if off. Writers that sneer at it should try doing it themselves, they might find it more challenging than they realise.
Two writers I love are, firstly, Jane Austen, particularly for Pride and Prejudice. I think that book may be the best, or at least the most perfect novel, in the English language. It has everything – deep intelligence, great characters, scintillating dialogue, glorious love interest, and a superbly worked-out narrative. Jane Austen would have made a brilliant Hollywood scriptwriter!
My other big favourite is James Joyce. He was so good a writer he could get away with not having a plot. Unfortunately, many lesser writers have tried to copy this technique, and without his towering linguistic genius you just end up with some pretty sentences – and a dull book.
I’m not going to name any writers that depress me, but the genre of literary fiction depresses me, sometimes. I have read too many Book Prize winners and thought ‘is that it?’ Often these are earnest narrative-less books written to impress critics not to entertain readers. Yawn.
But to end on a good note, there are also some great Booker Prize winners. Vernon God Little, I thought, was top notch, likewise Wolf Hall. They also have, unsurprisingly, cracking plots…